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Allan Emerson's Blog

What’s in a name? Plenty, when we’re talking about books…

Writers are always searching for apt titles for what they write. A good title is a promise, a taste of what’s to come. As a reader, sometimes the title alone is enough to draw me to a book.

Whenever I browse the list of R.L. Stine’s books, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom makes me laugh and want to read the book, even though I’m not in the target audience’s age group.

P.D. James was a writer with a gift for evocative titles. Her first mystery was called Cover Her Face, and another, The Skull Beneath the Skin. Both titles are taken from poems, the first from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and the second from a T.S. Eliot poem, Whispers of Immortality.

Another writer who found title inspiration in a poem is Alan Bradley, author of the popular Flavia de Luce series. His title The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches comes from A Night-Piece on Death by eighteenth-century poet Thomas Parnell.

Some writers go for puns as titles, which can make you laugh or groan and sometimes do both at the same time. Mary Daheim, author of the Bed and Breakfast mystery series, called one of her books Bantam of the Opera, and her latest is entitled Here Comes the Bribe. Kate Kingsbury, who writes a series that takes place in the fictional Pennyfoot Hotel, has books called Room with a Clue, and Ring for Tomb Service. My favorite pun title is from Golden Age crime queen Ngaio Marsh whose novel Died in the Wool featured the discovery of a victim on a sheep farm.

Eye-catching titles seem to go with the territory in Science Fiction. There’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, and Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson. I recently read Hugh Howey’s Wool, which unlike Marsh’s book has nothing to do with sheep and everything to do with a totalitarian regime where humans live in silos.

A title that flies in the face of your mother’s advice is Margaret Schulte’s Strangers Have the Best Candy, her humorous take on why you should talk to strangers. It won the 2014 Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, no mean feat when you consider it was up against Working Class Cats, and Are Trout South African?

For a really audacious title, nothing can compare to the Dave Eggers memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers said he chose the title because critics would have to use it in their reviews, thus ensuring at least one good quote for the book’s dust jacket. No doubt he was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but for a second or two I wondered if my book, Death of a Bride and Groom, would benefit from the same approach. Something like Allan J. Emerson’s Brilliant Mystery Death of a Bride and Groom, maybe? Nah, too long…

What’s your favorite title? Have you picked up a book, or not chosen one because of the title?

I show up here every Tuesday and I hope you will too. And please hit the Comment button and let me know what you think about the topic of the day.
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